“It will be our pleasure to serve up a night of in-room entertainment like no other.”
This bold promise leaps out of the programme for the UK premiere of Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales’ new collaborative song-cycle, Room 29. For the occasion the Barbican Theatre has relocated to Hollywood – Room 29 of the Chateau Marmont hotel, to be exact. The concierge gives us a room key on the way in, and we sit down, perspiring lightly from the journey, to find the grand piano in fine working order.
Over the next hour and a half the duo chip away at the history of this now-illustrious room and its exotic surrounds. All thoughts will be from the perspective of a ‘short-sighted musician and broadcaster’ from Sheffield and a man approaching the piano ‘with the attitude of a rapper’. The intrigue from the entrance lobby is palpable.
Gonzales enters in a bath robe, sits down at the piano, and plays a 1920s-style accompaniment to silent footage of the hotel, dry to the touch but rather touching at the same time. Then Cocker arrives bearing a suitcase, outlines the story and settles into his role as compere par excellence. Humour, wit, insight and typical English vulnerability are all part of his charm, but so is the singing voice, irresistible in these intimate surrounds, where the faintest of whispers can be heard as clearly as a shout.
He proceeds to tell tales of the hotel’s previous occupants, and more specifically its famous room, the inspiration keenly focused from the Pulp album This Is Hardcore. Mark Twain and his daughter Clara are first, then a picture of Jean Harlow is shown. The concert pianist who ordered the baby grand to the room is next, leading to a quaint and endearingly awkward re-enactment of their pose by today’s singer and pianist. Howard Hughes follows, ‘under the microscope’ – but this requires audience participation, the unsuspecting victim first delivering a drink to its coaster ‘in a loving manner’, before gingerly tottering back to the bed with Hughes’ microscope, containing the ‘worst virus known to mankind’. Proof that darkness still lurks within the Cocker psyche.
After a brief interlude room service is ordered, arriving in the form of the fully functioning Kaiser Quartet. Previous collaborators with Gonzales, they offer exquisite string arrangements that enhance the evening’s intimacy and add the right amount of colour to the occasion, their phrases beautifully aligned.
The audience participation includes rattling our house keys as extra percussion, one of several tactics designed to put us on the same level as the performers. Jarvis works his English awkwardness effortlessly, contorting his body as well as his face to make observations on society as sharp and poignant as they ever have been. The overall work does not have a central plot, but is more a collection of character portraits and memories, looking at the ghosts in the room.
The final song, Ice Cream As Main Course, goes across the street to Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant. Here an elderly couple have ordered starter, main and dessert all at once – a sign, says Jarvis, of the ways of living to come.
Along the way Cocker gets to indulge a fantasy or two that doesn’t quite work out – playing the room’s piano, or getting into the television – that is, disappearing from the room before singing the entire song Salomé to the audience from the grainy black and white in the middle of the room. It is a simple but devastatingly effective tactic, for when he reappears after some confusion Cocker is in the stalls, walking through and singing individually to faces.
Both performers clearly enjoy their creative and personal relationship, their sly but affectionate digs given with a knowing aside to the theatre each time. The close intimacy and strange, empty spaces of hotel living are examined in detail, but when Jarvis wants to throw wide the curtains expressively he does so. A Trick Of The Light is the musical tour de force of the evening, capped by a red strobe and the elastic arms of ballet dancer Maya Orchin.
It is a genuine regret when the hour of music comes to an end, but a bonus lies in store in the form of a Leonard Cohen cover. Paper Thin Hotel could have been written for mid-’90s Jarvis, dealing as it does with eavesdropping on sex in a hotel, but Cocker rises above the seedy side to conquer the tale handsomely. It sets the seal on a night rich with creative inspiration, where every audience member emerges with a smile, destined to last long into the night.